Buildings are cracked, windows have been smashed and power is out in parts of Wellington. Workers have been advised to stay out of the CBD today.
The city suffered minor to moderate damage following the 7.5 magnitude quake and ongoing aftershocks thoughout the night.
A building on the Terrace was being evacuated at 8.40am for safety reasons.
Downtown is unusually busy, people are gathered outside backpackers and hotels - some with packed bags and blankets. Many others have evacuated and headed to higher ground following a small tsunami and ongoing warnings more waves could come.
Logs are strewn around the port area in Wellington and there are reports of some damage to terminals.
Shipping workers were forced to flee the Kings Wharf freight shipping terminal in Wellington, after cracks began appearing and water spurting from beneath them.
"It was just panic stations," said the man who did not wish to be named.
"Water was coming up from the wharf, we had about five seconds to evacuate."
The man said he and seven of his colleagues all ran out together, and huddled to protect themselves in case glass or debris fell from nearby buildings.
"We were just about to board the vessel to start a 12 hour shift. The freight office started shaking and we thought the wharf was going to sink so we ran up the terminal and water was coming up from the ground.
"We were waiting for it to stop, but once we realised it was just powering up we just ran."
The man was now at his home in Wellington.
A group of people, mostly tourists, are taking shelter at the top of the Wellington cable car after fleeing their downtown accommodation. Some are sleeping in alcoves, while others are looking down into the harbour for signs of a tsunami.
Paul van der Wal and Nienke Vrenegoor, from the Netherlands, said they were on the sixth floor of the Trinity Hotel when the quake struck.
"It was shaking and then swinging - it seemed like a couple of minutes," van der Wal said. "It was pretty scary."
"I put my head around the door and people were like 'get out, get out now!'"
He said the earthquake was the largest he had experienced.
"Where we're from we do have earthquakes. But they're like 1.8, 2.0, nothing compares to this. In my country is it one, two seconds, that's it. Not like this."
There is now a steady trickle of people, on foot and in cars, heading uphill through the suburbs of Kelburn and Thorndon. Around 25 people were at at a Civil Defence centre at Kelburn Normal School, though it has not yet been opened.
Dilip Lala, who owns the Four Square in Kelburn, has spent the last two hours cleaning up broken bottles and other products which fell from shelves. Trails of juice and wine are spilling out of the front door onto the footpath.
"It was a real mess," he said. "There's nothing you can really do. This happens every time."
Lala said he did not want to head home, to Miramar, because he was worried about the tsunami threat.
"I don't know if we can get home. It might be a long night. We'll just have to wait and see."
Sarah Wood, a 19-year-old student in Wellington, is one of a group of 10 students who has evacuated their downtown apartments for higher ground.
"When the quake first happened there was a big crack in our wall. And we thought, 'We want to get out'," she said.
The group initially walked up the hill to Victoria University in Kelburn to spend the night.
"But then they told us it was a good idea to probably move up higher, so we just kept moving."
The group is headed for the Civil Defence shelter at Kelburn Normal School. Some of them had packed a bag for the night. One carried a teddy bear.
Zane Beaver, who lives in downtown Wellington, said he was on his laptop in bed when the quake struck.
"It was pretty confusing at first 'cos I haven't sat through a big earthquake before. I couldn't quite tell what was going on.
"It just started rocking around ... and it lasted for quite a while."
Beaver said he immediately ran out of his apartment building, where a large number of people were on the street and "looking stressed out".
"Everybody was trying to call people on their phones but phone lines were down at first."
Jared Blowatt, 28 and in NZ on a two year work visa, is one of guests calming nerves after being evacuated from the YHA Wellington City.
He had his ear phones in when the initial quake hit, trying to ignore a woman in the bunk above who was snoring.
"At first I thought, what is she doing now? Then the whole room started shaking."
Being from Canada it was his first quake. He called home and woke his mum at 6am local time to say he was ok.
Also pictures is Kate Stepowska, 32, from Poland.
Nick Sorensen was on level 1 of Amora Hotel when shake hit.
"It was huge - we grabbed our girls and ran for the stairs - walls cracking and plaster falling around us. We ended up trapped behind a 2.5m barbed wire topped fence outside the kitchen and those around us we're screaming for someone to open it. We ended up throwing jerseys and cardboard over the gate and climbing it - a couple of those with us helped lift our daughters over. We're sleeping in our van tonight!"
In the city centre mannequins have fallen down in most clothing shops. The majority of items in the Golfwarehouse are now on the floor.
Herald reporter Nicholas Jones said all hot food has sold out at the 24 hour Fix. Staff member says tonight has been like a Friday night in terms of business. A lot of people have given up on sleep tonight, or staying indoors.